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Men in black

Messianic believers and ultra-Orthodox clash in Israeli town

Men in black

(Oded Balilty/AP)

The latest scuffle on the streets of this small Israeli town in the Negev desert came as no real surprise to Eddie Beckford. Arad's ultra-Orthodox crowd has taunted, threatened, and assaulted the modest Messianic Jewish presence for years, holding massive demonstrations outside their homes and even torching the local chess club and Bible shop-a popular destination for the town's Russian immigrants.

What confounded Beckford this time around were the events following the skirmish. As one of the town's Orthodox tried to snatch his video camera on Feb. 27, Beckford and Steve Kaplan, an American tourist, shielded themselves. Both were assaulted, they claim, as they pushed the man away, but local police arrested only the victims and recorded testimony from the ultra-Orthodox community alone. Kaplan was released, but a judge placed Beckford on house arrest in Beersheva, miles away from Arad.

Although Israel has always had a strong ultra-Orthodox Jewish presence, defense lawyers in Israel say their clout in the region is growing, and that they have illegal ties with government agencies that have resulted in undue hardships for non-Jews, including a new campaign to revoke the citizenship of Messianic Jews.

As many Christians enthusiastically prepare for excursions to Israel in the coming months to commemorate the country's 60th anniversary, local believers caution against ignoring the reality on the ground. "Many Christians are shocked to hear what these men in black are doing to the Christians here. Many have the mistaken idea that these men are somehow 'holy,' but that is very far from the truth," Beckford's wife, Lura, said.

One of the primary instigators in the quest to stifle the Christian presence in Israel is an ultra-Orthodox organization called Yad L'Achim. In February the group placed an advertisement in one of Israel's most widely read newspapers that called for information about the location of Christian "missionaries"-a term used to describe all Christians in Israel.

Michael Decker, a senior legal analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Justice, told WORLD that there is an "illegal alliance between governmental organizations in Israel and the extreme Jewish Orthodox movement." He says Yad L'Achim is operating in conjunction with the offices of the Ministry of Interior to blacklist Messianic believers.

Christians receive a letter from the ministry calling them into their offices. Upon arrival they are questioned about their faith and religious activities and coerced into signing documents that often result in a loss of basic rights including the registration of their children in the official registry, the issuing of new identification cards, the renewal of their passport, and even citizenship.

Yad L'Achim's website divulges few specifics about its Counter Missionary Department: "We fight missionaries in a variety of ways, some of which, due to their sensitive nature, can't be described in detail." The website warns its readers that it is "vitally important to remember that any assistance provided by missionary organizations, as innocent as it might appear, ultimately leads to one thing: Jews joining up with Christians. In our battle against the missionaries we are even more motivated."

The intimidation tactics of these extremist groups are often successful at the local level, and the Beckfords tell of countless Christians who were denied essential papers, lost their jobs, and ran out of money. "Even the police are afraid to go against the Orthodox Jews because they want to keep their jobs. The policeman who arrested me told me he is afraid of losing his pension. He is due to retire next year," Lura Beckford said.

But while the ultra-Orthodox wield their influence throughout the lower levels of government, they have little influence over the nation's Supreme Court, Decker said. When Yad L'Achim challenged one of Israel's oldest churches on the legality of its building permit, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the church, Grace and Truth Christian Congregation. The legal victory for the congregation set precedence for other congregations across Israel facing building obstacles.

But the resources to defend believers against discrimination are not always readily available. Decker says his organization is struggling for manpower, and if he passes his April bar exam, he will be one of only three Messianic believers practicing law in Israel.

Money is another obstacle. Many of Israel's Messianic Jews (and Arab Christians) live in small, isolated communities and are jobless as a result of ultra-Orthodox campaigns against Christians in their communities.

Few have the resources to fight the forces behind the discrimination and struggle to understand why Christians in the West offer unequivocal support for Jews in Israel. "One of the most discouraging things to us is when we hear that Christians are donating money to organizations run by the Orthodox. They are using that money to persecute believers. One of our harassers was waving a $40,000 check he received from a Christian organization," Lura Beckford said.

Baruch Maov, the pastor of Grace and Truth Christian Congregation, says Christian misperceptions have other consequences as well: "I think that the unwillingness of most Christian friends of Israel to take up any stand that could be interpreted as criticizing Israel has weakened our ability to address our nation with the gospel because it has equated an interest in the Jewish people with a specific political platform."

The latest confrontation in Arad is only one chapter in the ongoing struggle between Christians and the ultra-Orthodox in the region (see "Igniting intolerance," Oct. 22, 2005), and it could prove costly.

Eddie Beckford faces a fine of 35,000 shekels-or more than $10,000-if he goes beyond the walls of the Messianic facility that is hosting him in Beersheva. Lura Beckford signed as the responsible party for her husband but didn't realize it involved a 24-hour watch until she returned to Arad for clothes and was arrested. Their demand, she says, is the equivalent of house arrest even though no charges were brought against her.

As the Beckfords' lawyer, an Israeli Christian Arab, is working on an appeal, the couple-both in their 60s-spend their days inside the complex and sleep in the storage room at night. Eddie Beckford's hearing is scheduled for May 20-a long wait for the active leaders of the King's Men Chess Club, a Bible shop, and a clothing distribution center.

They are eager to return to Arad and have hopes of building a community center that could house a Christian school, a women's shelter, rooms for tourists, and a shop to sell handcrafts made by believers who have lost their jobs because of their faith. Their desire is to contribute to their town in a way that inspires local leaders to depend on and defend their presence in Arad. In the meantime, they pray for patience.

"The total unfairness of it all is difficult to deal with, but we remind ourselves of Joseph and his unfair imprisonment and how the Lord used it to deliver His people."

Purim attack

In the latest tragedy to strike the Messianic community in Israel, the 15-year-old son of a prominent pastor in Ariel narrowly escaped death when a bomb exploded in his home on March 20. The bomb was disguised as a Purim package wrapped in cellophane and covered with chocolate.

When Ami Ortiz opened the package, the bomb exploded and shrapnel peppered the home. Both of the boy's lungs were punctured by hot, metal shards, and his limbs were covered with gashes and burns. Both arms are broken and one eye is injured from the shard. He is currently listed in stable condition, but doctors say he faces a long recovery.

The blast thoroughly damaged the home's living room, kitchen, and windows, and local believers already are at work on repairs.

Investigators are looking into two primary suspects: Arab terrorists and Jewish extremists. The local ultra-Orthodox have a history of harassing the Ortiz family, but the city's Muslims have also been angered because of the family's work among the Arab population. David Ortiz, the boy's father, has led a number of Muslims to Christ, and Hamas issued a fatwa against Ortiz several years ago.

Family friend Hannah Weiss shared her perspective on the attempted murder: "There is a lot of talk about extreme Orthodox groups which live in the area and do not disguise their hostility against believers. But no matter how violent, I have never heard of any Jew packing metal shards and bolts into a bomb-much less us[ing] it on fellow Israelis."

Jill Nelson

Jill Nelson